By GUY KOVNER Press Democrat Staff Writer
PETALUMA -- The risk of fire due to public use of Lafferty Ranch is greater than previously estimated, according to a revised environmental report released Friday by City Hall.
That conclusion is one of the most significant changes in the report, which was first released two years ago. It has undergone extensive and expensive revisions in response to threats of litigation and numerous comments from nearby property owners who oppose turning the ranch into a public park.
The 270-page report, accompanied by an appendix of several hundred pages, came back from the printer Friday afternoon.
It says that despite numerous precautions -- including livestock grazing, mowing and prescribed burns -- "there is a possibility of a fire escaping Lafferty Ranch and burning neighboring property."
The proposed livestock grazing program, however, is also identified as an environmental problem because it would cause erosion into Adobe Creek, a habitat for steelhead and yellow-legged frogs.
Council member Matt Maguire, a veteran of the prolonged battle over Lafferty Ranch, said completion of the draft report moves Petaluma a step closer to opening the 270-acre hillside property as a wilderness park.
Petaluma has budgeted $610,000 to develop the park, including legal fees and the environmental report.
A public hearing on the report is scheduled for Nov. 13, and city officials expect a legal challenge from Sonoma Mountain residents staunchly opposed to public use of the city-owned property.
"So who knows?" Maguire said when asked when the park might open.
The Petaluma council voted in 1996 to establish a wilderness park at Lafferty, and in 1998 the first version of an environmental report was produced.
Les Perry, an attorney for the Sonoma Mountain landowners, could not be reached for comment Friday. Perry has previously said that without pressure from the landowners, the city would have taken no environmental and safety precautions.
City Councilman Mike Healy said the council is in the "delicate position" of reviewing an environmental report on its own project.
"You have to be really careful and listen to all the parties," he said.
Environmental reports are usually commissioned by a city as an independent evaluation of a private developer's project.
Maguire again blamed park opponents for the delay and expense. "The fact of the matter is the public deserves access to its property," he said.
Whether the city has legal access to Lafferty over a narrow strip of land at the park entrance is unresolved, Maguire and Healy said.
The park project, as outlined in the report, includes a 15-space asphalt parking lot, a pay telephone and a portable toilet just off Sonoma Mountain Road.
The park would be open for day use only, except for special events, and the number of users would be limited by available parking.
Four trails would be built, with limited access to Adobe Creek minimizing erosion into the creek, the report said.
The park would be closed 25 to 50 days a year, during periods of highest fire hazard.
Park use would generate 36 to 82 trips per day, increasing the risk of accidents on narrow Sonoma Mountain Road, the report said. Improving the road to meet minimum standards would cost $2 million, an expense the report deemed unfeasible.
Migrating steelhead inhabit the creek at the southern end of Lafferty, and a "small population" of trout lives above an old city dam on the property.
Surveys in June 1999 found 24 trout from 1.4 to 7 inches long at 14 sites above the dam, the report said.
Instead of testing the trout to determine whether they are steelhead, the report said the park would include measures to protect the fish as if they were steelhead.